Changing Habits, Behaviors, and Attitudes: What will Stick?

Six things to get right for influence

I've been thinking about the question of change that sticks more in the past two months than I have in the past twenty years. Because pandemics have a way of focusing attention on the few things that matter to people.

The impossibility of predicting something in the early days of a fluid and complex environment is not preventing many from trying. Much of the current research I've read suffers from availability heuristic, confirmation bias and small sample size, for starters. Feel free to add the biases you've observed from this list.# That's mostly because what people say and what they do tend to have gaps.

If you could send yourself a letter from the future, what would you say? You'd probably take the long view and recognize how the future exists across a spectrum. This is the reason why I'm contributing to a crowdsourced global research project to have the spectrum in full view of what's not everyday life, and make sense of it.

Culture is in the driver's seat

Culture dictated how countries around the world handled the pandemic, including information and news. Within that macro-cultural environment, companies and individuals make decisions. 

Culture has an impact how countries will restart. Again, the spectrum of behaviors within those decisions will vary. The spectrum will likely include big campaigns to make you feel normal again.

Culture is influencing how we're handling the lockdown. We're not really in it together, though, are we? Keep the distance has become a mantra. How you organize your life right now is probably very different to how your neighbor is handling things.

Hence the importance of casting a wide net with qualitative data to put yourself in other people's shoes. Qualitative data is how you decide which quantitative data to pay attention to, isn't it?

But all of this doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to bring about the change you'd like to see in the world. Working through ambiguity and reconnecting with your “why” is step one. Step two is probably rediscovering the power of the right relationships.

Create connection

It's critical to think about what restarting looks like to have a chance to come out of it on the other side. But it's hard to plan when much of the information you're drowning in is not really solid. Recency bias, sample size and more.

Maybe you were prepared to face a crisis, maybe your customers, employees, and partners believed your communications. Maybe they'll remember you care, because you demonstrated it.

How can you influence what your people will do? In other words, can you create a culture that responds to the new normal? Whatever that might be. Are there specific steps you can take to create an ethos and culture that delivers a reliable customer experience?

Yes, you can. And you can do it by creating the conditions to motivate and enable others to change what they do. In a way very similar to the global qualitative research I mentioned above plus practice. The authors of Influencer found there are personal social, and structural levers that work to create connection and influence outcomes.

Influence outcomes

Whenever someone introduces something new that requires change, you ask two basic questions: “Can I do what's required?” and “Will it be worth it?” You wonder if you have what it takes and if you feel like engaging.

Make no mistake, the situation will have changed after the pandemic. The degree of change is elusive right now, but protracted quarantines, loss of jobs and economic loss have a way of changing people. Trust is already a big issue. Hope and fears are moving targets. And let's not forget the pain.

Your mileage may vary. So look at the personal and social sphere, how motivation and ability change based on those contexts, as well as structural sources of motivation, like incentives, and ability. Borrow from human psychology for motivation:

  • allow for choice — if one's free to say “no,” he/she may reach the conclusion to do something on his/her own. Much more powerful. Agency, the ability to decide, is important. For example, people could think in terms of what I want vs. what others think about me. Awareness is a stronger motivator than confrontation. Listening is a valuable skill for change agents to uncover what people want deep down.
  • create direct experiences — show, don't tell, to help people recognize, feel, and believe in the long-term consequences of their decisions. Ask the CEO to use her customer service line. You'll know the potential gaps between what the company promises and the experience it delivers quickly. Coming face to face with consequences is a good way to imagine future selves and take corrective action.
  • tell meaningful stories — comes later because action is first. Always. Good storytelling can put a human face to people's actions. Imagine this hypothetical story: “Hey Dan, a few minutes ago a young dad walked into our restaurant holding the hand of his young daughter. He set her daughter up on a chair and walked up to order. While his back was turned, the daughter began sweeping her hand back and forth across the table that was not cleaned from a previous guest. Then she began licking it.” Difficult before, cringe-worthy now.
  • make it a game — Mary Poppins used fun to get the kinds to do something. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrated that when we have reasonably challenging goals and clear, frequent feedback we feel engaged. In games, we keep score, we're part of a competition where constant improvement is possible, and we have some form of control over scores and rewards.

Be deliberate

What's normal changes, people generally don't. So it's a safe bet to understand how motivation and ability interact in personal, social, and structural situations. Change happens at the individual level. Even when it then becomes a movement in the social sphere, you have a chance to encourage individual action to support large-scale change.

In Cascades, Greg Satell speaks about this time of uncertainty:

Inertia can be a powerful force, even more powerful than hope or fear.

Our existing mental model is that strong governance drives change.

A generation ago, we would expect a dominant model in an industry to last an entire career, whereas today, we can't depend on a business model lasting even a decade.

What we miss when we look at nascent trends is the early stages is that diverse groups tend to intersperse and connect. These connections don't form in an organized, gradual manner, but exponentially.

When groups first connect, there is always a period of awkward distance. Much like a dance at summer camp, where the boys and girls start on opposite sides of the room, the first connections are slow to happen.

Networks really are “small worlds,” clustered into tiny communities, but also connected through links over long distances.

What we see determines how we will act.

There's context to moving people to action. Greg calls it the threshold model. We all have different things that motivate us. Our identity and our view of the world influence parts of motivation.

We react or respond to situations based on how things are going—are we stressed, or is it a good day? But we also watch what the people in our circles are doing. This is why most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging.

The climate pre-pandemic didn't feel warm and fuzzy on community. But if you want to be here in the next decades, the job is to rebuild and repair your  connections, along with the rest of the infrastructure. Possibly in a more sustainable manner.

Be deliberate as you forge a new agenda based on shared values (and virtues):

1. Focus and measure — to influence we need to be crystal clear on the results we're trying to achieve and zealous in measuring them.

For example, “We will save 100,000 lives from medical mistakes by June 14, 2020, by 9am” is much better than “We will reduce preventable harm in hospital,” it's more tangible, uses simple language, and the number we want to keep an eye on is right there.

There are good measures and bad measures. A useful measure tells you how you're doing with the real target you want to change, it drives behavior.

2. Find vital behaviors — use the high-leverage behaviors that drive results. Those 2-3 actions that produce the greatest amount of change. For example, restaurant staff that observes and notices things as they interact with guests. It's a skill honed with practice by constantly scanning the environment for opportunities to be of service.

3. Engage all six sources of influence — identify all the forces that are shaping the behaviors you want to change: personal, social, and structural. Then address motivation and ability.

As everyone wonders what will stick post-pandemic, the opportunity is for leaders to show they are listening, to respond with empathy and provide clear direction.


I send out a chatty weekly email with links to resources to feel less lonely, lead better, and absorb some Italian style in good company.


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